Katusha-Alpecin's team manager José Azevedo believes that Marcel Kittel can turn his fortunes around following an early departure from the Tour de France without having won a stage. Kittel is expected to make his return to racing at the BinckBank Tour, which starts on August 13.
After dominating last year's sprints with five victories, Kittel struggled to impose himself this year, with younger riders Fernando Gaviria and Dylan Groenewegen taking two victories each along with Peter Sagan. The German then struggled in the Alps and was sent home after missing the time cut on stage 11 to Albertville.
"We need to continue to work, it's the only thing that we can do. For sure, things will turn around because Marcel is a great rider," Azevedo told Cyclingnews.
"For a sprinter, he needs to win to have this feeling to give himself confidence. When you have a month or two without winning, in your head you start to be nervous but Marcel has a lot of experience and we're going to support him."
Leaving the Tour de France in the second week just compounds what has been a difficult transition to the Katusha-Alpecin team. Kittel has just two victories to his name so far this season, compared to the 13 he'd amassed by the same point last year, when he was racing in the colours of Quick-Step Floors.
Tensions within the team became clear when directeur sportif Dimitri Konyshev labelled Kittel as 'egotistical' in an interview with L'Equipe. Azevedo says that the team hasn't lost confidence in their sprinter and that he has their full backing.
"It's not easy for him but the team is 100 per cent behind him," said Azevedo. "We support him and motivate him. Sometimes in your career, you have periods where you go more up and others where you go more down, but we don't want to lose confidence in Marcel. For me, he is the strongest sprinter in the peloton, we need to do his work, we are behind him, we support him to the maximum.
"It's like this, it's sport, so now we need to focus on another goal, and for Marcel, we already have his next race in his programme and we hope that he can be in good shape to go for the stage win."
Kittel wasn't Katusha-Alpecin's only departure from the Tour de France, with the team down to half their initial line-up following crashes and fatigue.
Robert Kiserlovski was the first to go on stage 5 when he crashed heavily on a corner and broke his collarbone. Tony Martin followed a few days later when he crashed with Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) on stage 8 and fractured several vertebrae. He has been forced to take three weeks off the bike as he begins his recovery and it's not clear how long he will be out. Rick Zabel missed the time cut on the same day as Kittel but was reinstated, only to abandon the following day.
One of the four riders remaining is Katusha's GC leader Ilnur Zakarin. The Russian came to the Tour de France with plenty of expectation on his shoulders following his third place at last year's Vuelta a España. However, the Tour has not quite gone to plan so far, with the Russian losing just over 10 minutes on the yellow jersey.
Zakarin is now in 13th place overall with more than three minutes to make up to move into the top 10, but Azevedo believes that he can do it.
"He feels ok. He's happy, he's motivated. He wants to finish in the top 10. It's important not only when the team believes but it when the rider also believes," Azevedo told Cyclingnews. "We have this feeling and for sure he's going to give his maximum.
"Of course, in the Alps, he lost some time, some important time when you are here and you want to do the GC. In the last week, we have four important stages, the three mountain stages and the time trial. People start to feel more tired and Ilnur likes the last moments of the big Tours. For example, at the Giro and the Vuelta last year, he started to move up in the last week. In the last week, he can continue to hold his form. It is our goal to finish in the top 10 and I think that it is possible."
Katusha-Alpecin's Tour de France campaign has been representative of their season as a whole. The team have just three victories - Kittel's two at Tirreno-Adriatico and one from Nathan Haas at the Tour of Oman - while their former sprinter Alexander Kristoff has four. With the transfer window set to open next week, Katusha will surely be looking to make a few changes to their roster to bolster their line-up.
Azevedo admitted that the team had under-performed in 2018 but said that he was not prepared to discuss changes to the team with plenty more racing to come.
"It's not time to talk about change," he said. "We are in July and until October it is the season of 2018, so we need to continue pushing the riders and keep the good spirit in the team. We have three months of racing in front of us. These are our goals and we need to continue fighting and we have a good team, good riders and of course when you look the results don't correspond to the level of our team. It's true. But, you know, we will continue working. It's the only the thing you can do.
"We need to focus on the racing and don't bring this to the conversation. We want to give confidence to the riders and go to the races motivated."